It was a cold, blustery day, yet bathed in sunshine, the kind you have during the cold season here in the hills of East Tennessee. A fellow member of First Presbyterian Church, Bob Ashburn, joined me for an overnight backpack on the Appalachian Trail, up at Cross Mountain. You know where Cross Mountain is, where Highway 91 along Stoney Creek from Elizabethton tops out, then drops into Shady Valley. Cross Mountain is at the top. There is a trailhead parking area located there, making embarking from this gap a breeze.
Bob and I had a goal to hike to Double Spring Shelter, camping overnight but not at the three-sided hut, rather under the stars, to soak in the panoramic and clear starry skies so common on cold winter evenings.
Several decades past, when the Appalachian Trail was originally laid out, certain sections went through private property. Such was the case atop Cross Mountain, where Mr. and Mrs. Lester Osborne had a farm. Straddling the Johnson County/Carter County line, the open meadows of their place provided stunning views, but it was private property. Eventually, the AT was rerouted around their farm. Fast forward to September 25, 2001 when the Osbornes sold their farm to the Nature Conservancy, who in turn sold it to the United States Forest Service, and their home became part of the Cherokee National Forest.
The Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoe Club, which maintains the Appalachian Trail in these parts, sprang into action, rerouting the Appalachian Trail over the mountaintop meadows at the Osborne Place, restoring the views that we can enjoy today. As an added benefit, the first half-mile of the trail was made wheelchair accessible, an unusual thing for the Appalachian Trail. This first half-mile is 3 feet wide and covered with hard-packed gravel.
The gravelly beginning makes for an easy start to the hike and lures in not only wheelchair hikers but also casual strollers who happen upon the path, then enjoy those mountain panoramas. This half-mile part of the trail did not come cheap either — over $18,000. Today, the Osborne farmhouse has been removed, but some outbuildings remain, reflecting its agricultural heritage. Fences crisscross the 250-acre tract. You will go through some of them on this hike.
Leave the parking area, crossing to the west side of Tennessee 91. A gravel road extends west but the hike works through a gate, following the white-blazed Appalachian Trail into open grassy pasture. Do not be surprised if cattle are grazing in the meadow, — they help keep it from growing over in trees and obscuring the gorgeous views, and the grazing lease provides revenue to help maintain the property.
Continue following the gravel all-access trail as it rolls over grassy hills. Ahead, weathered outbuildings, relics from the Osborne’s, come into view and you will pass near them. Views open.
To your west, the direction you are hiking, Holston Mountain forms a rampart and is the ridge the AT follows beyond Cross Mountain. To your right the patchwork fields of Shady Valley spread out below. Iron Mountain forms the eastern flank of Shady Valley. When the skies are clear you will see the dark mass of Mount Rogers (Virginia’s highest point) and Whitetop Mountain, the signature peaks of the Mount Rogers high country.
Locust posts, blazed in white, keep you on the correct path over the open meadows. When the skies are foggy, rainy or otherwise inclement these posts help hikers find their way. After a half-mile, the gravel, all-access portion of the Appalachian Trail ends at a contemplation bench. The magnificence of Johnson County, Tennessee opens before you. The ecologically significant cranberry bogs of the Osborne property are just below. Shady Valley is the most southerly location of cranberry bogs in the United States. Shady Valley has it’s cranberry festival every fall.
Continue following the posts to reach the end of pasturage and a stile at one mile. Here, the Appalachian Trail enters woods and continues westerly under hardwoods and pines, as well as evergreens of rhododendron and mountain laurel. The AT gently moves uphill, northwesterly along Cross Mountain. At two miles, pass a rocked-in spring and campsite just to the right of the trail. This flow forms Stony Creek’s headwaters and would be camp for Bob Ashburn and me. The hike works uphill, rising to a gap at 2.7 miles. Rich Knob stands just to your right. Descend on a south facing slope from the gap, drifting to a white pine laden hollow and the Double Spring Shelter at 2.9 miles. Here, the concrete block three-sided refuge lies in the flat.
A spur trail to a spring leads left and the Appalachian Trail turns uphill to the right, joining Holston Mountain and heading northeast to Damascus, Virginia and points beyond. This is a good place to turn around, but make sure and sign in, and at the trail register in the shelter.
It is really not a bad camp either. However, these trail shelters can be plagued with mice. When I stayed here at Double Spring shelter before, some guys from South Carolina brought mousetraps. Before morning came, we caught and removed nine mice!
On this trip, Bob and I sauntered back to the rocked-in spring and campsite a mile from the shelter. The night was going to be frigid, so we gathered ample wood. Bob was a pretty good wood gatherer for a doctor. Luckily, the winter wind wasn’t bad and we contentedly sat before a rip snortin’ fire, cooking brats for dinner. The stars came out in full force that early winter evening. We admired and contemplated the heavens above before retiring to overstuffed sleeping bags.
The ground and everything else was frozen the next morn. I started the fire. We enjoyed some piping hot morning java before hiking back across the meadows of the old Osborne farm, crunching atop frozen grasses and reveling in another view of Shady Valley, rimmed in the mountains we love so dear.
If you want to cross Cross Mountain here are the directions: From exit 24 on I-26 near Johnson City, follow the signs for Elizabethton, joining US 321 north/TN 67 east. Travel for 8.6 miles to reach US 19E and a traffic light. Turn left here, now joining US 19E north just a short distance to cross the Watauga River. Turn right on TN 91, Stoney Creek Road. Follow TN 91 for 18.4 miles to reach a gap with Cross Mountain Road to your right. The parking area is on the right just past Cross Mountain Road.